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The Masterwork the Whitney Rejected

Charles Ray’s Huck and Jim at the Art Institute of Chicago.


For all its promise, the new Whitney will be marked by an original sin. After boldly commissioning Charles Ray to design a sculpture to be permanently installed outside the museum, the Whitney blinked and declined Ray’s proposal. But the work, now exhibited in Chicago, is a masterpiece; it embodies so much of America that had it been placed in front of this museum, at this time, it might have been a second Statue of Liberty.

The figures loom at about one-and-a-half times natural size, and as realistic as they are, they feel abstracted. Yet they’re locked in orbit. A man towers over us at about nine feet, not a colossus but something of an augur, peering into a distance over our heads. He extends a hand over the bending figure of the boy who is looking into his own open hand; he’s lost, too, absorbed in something.

I can’t recall a contemporary artist better electrifying a work of art with its title. The sculpture is called Huck and Jim. But this is not Huck’s story any longer. It is Jim’s. Or whatever version of Jim’s story could be truly authored by a white sculptor. Jim is the lodestar of this work. Huck is looking for adventure, but Jim is running for his life. As James Baldwin wrote, “It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.” And I haven’t even mentioned the sexual tension of the work, which depicts both of them nude.


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